Sep 21 2014

Not Quite at Home

I took some ribbing from De-facto about my trip to Paris. I’d tried to tie it in to some business travel coming up next week – often if connecting flights are required, I’ll arrange for a change in Paris and take an extra night to run into town, check in with friends, get the mail at our old apartment and attend to my hair – but next week flying via Paris made no sense in terms of timing or cost. It’d been two months since a haircut. My hair has its own personality and works at several lengths as it grows, until it gets too long and heavy and sloppy-headed. I combed the travel sites for a reasonable fare, and just when I was about to give up and go to a local salon, I got an email from a discount airline offering 35-euro flights. I found one that would whisk me into Paris one morning and return me, well-coiffed, to Barcelona the next.

Walking through the Orly airport I felt buoyant. The spring in my step, the kind you get when you are someplace you’re glad to be. The sounds of the airport, the look and language of the people, it was all comfortably familiar. paris_rooftopsEven when my French bank card was rejected at the train ticket machine, I didn’t panic. I went to the window and tried it again with a human helper. The card was damaged, he said, probably the chip. I had enough cash to get a ticket into the city and enough time before my appointment to stop at my bank branch and order a replacement card and withdraw some money the old fashioned way, from a teller.

This transaction was effortless. I know how to navigate in French without thinking too hard. I know what metro stop to take to get where I want to go without studying the map, or the app. I can count on my bank to be open during what I consider normal business hours. How many times in Spain, have I tried to attend to errands only to be confronted with a dark office, a locked door or a closed gate because its during the hours of the afternoon siesta? What a relief that I could simply solve this surprise problem with a quick detour to my bank and I could make myself understood instantly. France actually seemed easy.

Can you believe that? Navigating the hidden code of its bureaucracy, enrolling the girls in school and at the conservatory, sorting out cartes de sejour and the tax foncier – not that many years ago I labored to figure out the complexities of the French system. Compared to Spain, France is efficient. Things get put off and re-directed, but there’s not as much mañana. Maybe it’s just more familiar after nearly two decades there. Surely if I remain in Spain, or Catalonia – my Spanish friends remind me that Barcelona isn’t really Spain – this comfort will develop. Funny how it takes not quite feeling at home in a country to realize that I felt quite at home in a country and didn’t realize how much I felt at home in.

~ ~ ~

Our cross-country trek put me in the United States for the longest stretch of consecutive days since I moved abroad. We spanned the nation, taking in its west coast cool, mid-western earnestness and east coast hustle. I understood every word of every conversation I had with every store clerk, waitress or stranger in the street. I spoke English non-stop, except for the odd French or Spanish exchange with Short-pants, who has a knack for languages and enjoys exercising her linguistic muscle.

Yet despite the ease of communication, I didn’t really feel at home. So many things about my own country feel foreign to me. I moved away from the United States 22 years ago, just as Bill Clinton took office for his first term. It was a different America that I left. Pre-9/11, you only waved the flag on the 4th of July. The middle class wasn’t an endangered species. People didn’t white_black_Obama_flagneed to debate Genesis vs. Darwin, one was a belief, the other, a fact. Religion meant helping your community rather than damning another. Elected representatives compromised to forge solutions instead of waging a war against the opposing party no matter what its objective. I’m not saying the United States was perfect in the ‘80s. Women and minorities have a much better place in American society now than they did then (there’s still a lot of room for improvement) and I’m proud that we elected a black president for two terms. But it’s a very different country than the one I left, and it doesn’t always feel familiar to me.

By the time we crossed the border to Canada and made our way to the airport, I couldn’t wait to get back to Spain. It did feel good to turn the key in the door of our Barcelona apartment. My first walk around the neighborhood, to my local haunts, gave me a feeling of returning to something home-like. I even have a Spanish ID number now, which means I am able to obtain our very own ADSL internet connection, something we survived a year without, thanks to generous neighbors who shared their network with us. (Not even a pre-pay option exists for internet in Spain.) I ordered our Internet service twenty days ago and though the router arrived via post, we are still waiting for the technician to come and to flip some switch to make it operable.

I have been back to the store twice to inquire. During the most recent trip I figured I’d stop and make a deposit on the way, but at 4:00 pm the bank was still closed for its lunchtime siesta. You can’t imagine how many times I turn up at the tailor, the eyeglass shop, the you-name-it store, thinking it’s way past lunch, they have to be open by now, only to find out that they don’t open again until 5:00. Granted they stay open until 8:30 or 9:00 pm. But by then I’m already having cocktails, not running errands. Clearly I’m not yet accustomed to the Spanish clock. I’m still not quite at home here.

If you ask the girls where home is, you’ll get different answers. For Buddy-roo, Paris is her true home and awaits our return. Short-pants loves living in Barcelona, and optimistically remarks that France and the United States feel like home, too. I’ve written before about feeling in between two cultures. you_are_here Now it seems I’m dancing among three cultures at once, carrying an American passport, a French Carte de Resident or a Spanish Permiso de Residencia, appreciating each one but never quite feeling at home in any of them.

Don’t get me wrong: I love the laid-back attitude in Barcelona, especially during a long, late lunch or heading to the beach to go Stand-up Paddleboarding. But if you are trying to get something done, well, just expect a few hiccups. On Friday I was promised the Internet technician would come between 8 am and 2 pm, but he never showed up. When I phoned the service provider to ask about it, there was no record of my appointment, and no way to tell me when I might be given another. So this posting comes to you courtesy of our neighbor’s connection. Maybe in this modern world, home is where the wifi is. Once I get it, I’ll let you know.


Mar 13 2014

Well Stocked

It’s been more than twenty years since I moved abroad, and yet there are still some American products so cherished that I import them each time I return from a trip to the states. You don’t realize how accustomed you become to certain products until, after trying the local version,bed_head_stack you start to get homesick for your favorite brands. People ask me what I miss about the states, and of course I reply first about the people I don’t get to see enough: my family, college friends, childhood buddies. But then I have to admit that I long for simple household items, like cotton swabs and dental floss. I’ve tried to buy those innocuous but useful items in my host countries, but nothing beats a Q-tip or a string of Glide floss. There’s a list of special American brands that I prefer, and so on each trip to the states I make a quick stop at the neighborhood CVS or Walgreens and pick up a stash of my favorite brands. Many friends who come to visit have played carrier pigeon to specifically named brands of maple syrup, peanut butter and a carefully described feminine products. Anyone flying east over the Atlantic, if they are willing, comes with some goodies to keep my inventory flush.

Since our move to Barcelona, I’ve been hit with a double-whammy. Now there’s a brand new list of French products I’ve come to rely on that either have inferior replacements in Spain or don’t exist at all here. I’ve spent the last few months hunting through different markets and pharmacies in my new neighborhood and further afield, hoping to find a comparable toothpaste or hair gel – don’t even get started with me about face creams – without satisfaction.

At first, it was just about stocking up. I’d come back from a quick 2-day trip to Paris with a fresh haircut and a suitcase topped off with the favorite soaps and spices. I liked having a stash of my favorite stuff under the sink, or in that top corner cupboard. I felt comforted by the presence of my familiar products. With each trip – I end up going to Paris almost monthly, just for a day or two – I’ll do a drive-by my old local supermarket and pharmacy, and even though I have three boxes of Marvis Italian toothpaste in the cupboard in Barcelona, I feel compelled to buy another. “Who knows when I’ll be back again?” I tell myself, even though I’ve already booked the plane ticket for next month. “I might as well get some more – just in case.”
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With each trip, my inventory grows, which prompted me to initiate a conversation with De-facto about how one behaves in the context of scarcity and abundance, how I like to keep a healthy stash of my favorite supplies. Not that I’m wasteful, but that I like the abundance so I don’t have to skimp. I’m happy when there’s a reserve.

“That’s not about abundance,” he told me, “that’s about hoarding.”

If a stranger came to my home and looked in the cupboards under my kitchen and bathroom sinks, (s)he’d certainly sense the OCD quality of my acquisitions. You can tell immediately which products I covet because there are no less than four packages of each, and often more. And if I get down to just one on deck, I must admit, I get a bit nervous.

Is this how it starts, the wacky old lady bit? I remember, growing up, how there was an eccentric old man who lived in a big house and it was said he hoarded so many things you couldn’t even walk in the rooms. Most notable was his alleged possession of every issue of the New York Times since he started to read. I’m pretty sure this was an urban myth – or a rural myth, my hometown was pretty small – but the image of him stays with me, the way he shuffled down the street, newspaper in hand. Is this my future?

My mother had a little hoarder in her. She saved every issue of Good Housekeeping, from the time she started keeping house in the 1950s, labeled in cartons in the backroom, which at one point was impenetrable. She did a lot of just-in-case saving, but she lived in that big old house so why not? It’s certainly not the reason that prompted our move, but it’s been a fringe benefit: I cleared out a lot of clutter from our Paris apartment when almond_dish_soapI prepared it for our (heroic) renter. But of course if ask you him about this, he’ll laugh. There’s still a lot left, things I haven’t figured out how to part with.

But that’s the sentimental stuff. Now I have this new compulsion, like a mad squirrel stowing things away for the winter, to keep my cabinets filled with my favorite things from not only the states, but from France, too. Is this me holding on too firmly to the life I loved in Paris? Or just an obsession with good quality or familiar products not yet replaced in the new hometown?

I was in Paris last week, and I’m about to go to the states next week, so at the moment my tendency to hoard is at an all time high. But still, if you’re coming to visit us in Barcelona, from France or from America, do let me know how much room you have in your suitcase. I’ll give you a list of just what to bring.


Dec 15 2013

Absolute Power

I pulled the basket of silverware out of the dishwasher and set it on the counter for Buddy-roo. It’s one of her assigned chores to empty it and put the silverware away in its drawer. A few of the forks had been placed with their tongs downward in the container. I took one out to inspect it and, as suspected, it was caked with food from the previous night’s dinner.

“The silverware should be put in the dishwasher with the handles down and the silver part facing up.” I announced this to the entire family with the exasperated authority that only a mother possesses. “Otherwise it doesn’t get properly washed.”
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“Your mother has just issued an edict,” said De-facto.

Short-pants had been studying French history, something to do with Louis XIV’s decision to revoke the Edict of Nantes. De-facto was reading from her notebook, quizzing her for an upcoming test.

“That means she has absolute power,” said Short-pants.

“Does she?”

The girls nodded in unison. This led to a discussion about the governance of our household. Was it really a matriarchal monarchy? Was I a cruel despot or a benevolent ruler? Should I be ousted? Would such a revolution result in anarchy?

“Actually,” said Short-pants, “it’s more of an oligarchy.” She’d plucked that word off a list for her upcoming spelling bee. We’d looked it up the day before. “Both of you get to tell us what to do.”

“That’s right,” said De-facto, “but your mother makes the rules. Like the Edict of Silver High.”

~ ~ ~

Last week I got to spend five days in Paris, without man or kids in tow. I had many errands on my list, including a routine medical check-up that I opted to have conducted in French rather than Spanish. I made visits to the beauty nurse and my coiffeur, met up with friends, even went to a party and danced until 3 am. I had a brunch date with no reason to rush home afterward, permitting me to stroll around the neighborhood window shopping, doing a bit of nothing. I stayed in my studio and enjoyed hours of solitude. I cleaned up after no-one but myself. It was reminiscent of my early days in Paris, clown_carrotbefore there was a family wanting and needing my attention.

While I was basking in my imaginary exile, I could easily envision what was happening at home with De-facto at the helm. No doubt the laundry was piling up, beds were left unmade, bikes and scooters were parked in the living room, leftovers shoved in the fridge in the pot they were cooked in with a plastic bag barely covering them. Ours is a whole different household when it’s under his patriarchal rule.

I don’t mean to assert that all fathers – or all men, for that matter – are slobs. My brother keeps his desk organized at right angles and grabs the towels for the wash before you’ve even had a chance to finish drying off. Our tenant in Paris takes good care of our apartment; he keeps it clean and in good order. But the stereotype of the messy man has evolved from some nugget of truth and De-facto could be the poster boy. My girls happen take after their father, with haphazard filing systems and dirty clothes stuffed under their beds.

I can’t complain (too much) about what happens when I’m away from home. I don’t take it for granted that I get to go away for several days at a time, that De-facto can easily function as a single parent, self-sufficiently cooking for himself and the girls, managing school runs and acting as the overlord of the homework brigade. I have friends who prepare meals and store them in the freezer, planning ahead so the family will have something to eat each day during their absence. Other friends give me the snake eye if I moan even a bit about what happens when I’m gone; they have little or no chance to escape from their kids and husbands. I get to go away on my own a lot, lingering somewhere after a job, escaping every July to the fiesta or just going off for a fun weekend alone in Paris, something they remind me is not standard practice for every couple.

~ ~ ~

They made an effort to pull the place together before my return. Carpets were straightened, dishes moved from the sink to the dishwasher. A laundry had even been endeavored, the clean clothes were draped, somewhat awkwardly, over the drying rack. Coats that were surely left on chairs all week were hung in 3_on_a_bikethe closet, shoes stashed on the shoe-rack at the last moment. Bikes had been stowed in their designated compartments. I’d been gone long enough so that the feeling of missing my family would have overpowered any discomfort at the condition of the apartment. The reunion was so joyful that they got cocky and started to boast about the carefree life under the patriarchy.

“Was it anarchy here, then?” I asked.

“Absolutely,” said Short-pants.

“No,” said Buddy-roo, grinning, “It was manarchy.”


Nov 7 2013

Home Away from Home

I needed a knife to test the cake, to see if it was done. The oven door open, I reached behind me, to the top middle drawer in the kitchen island, an automatic gesture after using that kitchen for twelve years. My hand landed on cardboard boxes of biscuits, crackers and grains instead of the cutlery tray I expected to find. The drawer is no longer the silverware drawer. I had to clear the old memory and replace it with new information. Our tenant has made himself at home in our apartment, as he should. Part of that includes organizing the kitchen to fit his logic. I don’t mind and many of his alterations are improvements. But even after several days of operating in the re-arranged kitchen, I couldn’t override my old habits. I kept reaching into drawers and cupboards and finding something other than what I’d reached for. Those mental pathways are etched in my brain like deep ravines.
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We’d driven into Paris in the late morning, managing to avoid the rush hour and also to get to our street before it was infested with the pedestrian tourists that accumulate around lunch time, making it impassible. It was all familiar: turning the key in the street door that opens into the cobblestone corridor with the leafy courtyard – now with red leaves that I love to see every year at this time – up four flights of stairs to our door and into the apartment that for so many years, until two months ago, we called home.

Because our tenant is heroic and also a good friend, he understands that from time to time we want to come back to Paris, to see people and stay connected. He organized a trip last week that would coincide with our desire to come visit, so we could stay in the apartment while he was gone. One of our objectives: to collect another van-load of personal possessions to move to Barcelona. Buddy-roo was thrilled because it meant that she could celebrate her birthday with her old gang of Paris friends. She’d had a very small party with a few Barcelona friends before the school break, involving hot dogs and pony rides. We had a family celebration at the country house; she’d been a good sport about spending most of her actual birthday in a car. She’d been missing her Parisian friends – me, too – so I organized for her a little boum (that’s a French dance party) and invited not only a handful of her friends, but their parents too.

By the time we carried our things up to the apartment, I had only a few hours to run errands and shop, decorate for the party, set up the music playlist and bake a cake. I found myself running at the familiar Parisian pace: a brisk walk without time to spare, to the department store, the pharmacy and the grocery, before running home to crack eggs in a bowl and cook up a cake. The cake pan wasn’t anywhere to be found, not even in its usual spot, so I had to rifle through a box of kitchen stuff stashed behind the couch. Luckily I’d hidden the birthday candles on the top shelf of an obscure cupboard, so Buddy-roo’s cake had candles to blow out.

We were still downloading Ylvis from iTunes and blowing up balloons when the doorbell started ringing. The younger guests batted the balloons around the room while the older guests congregated around the kitchen island drinking wine and telling stories (completely unaware that the contents of its drawers were completely changed). It felt good to be withpeace_flowers old friends, good to touch base and stay in their circle. It felt natural to be there; and why shouldn’t it? It was our home until just recently. We haven’t been gone long enough, really, to feel like strangers when we return. Yet standing there I knew something had already shifted. It still felt like home, but I knew it really wasn’t.

The rest of the week ran at the same pace, with dozens of errands and appointments. I saw the beauty nurse and my coiffeur. The girls saw their pediatrician – a gentle, lovely man who is part Groucho Marx and part Ghandi – because we needed a health certificate from him for their Spanish residency. It was worth the two hours spent in his waiting room because he is a wonderful man and the girls love him so. And it never hurts to have a check-up. If we stay in Barcelona, we’ll need to find new doctors and care-takers, but for now it’s good to inject a little of the familiar into all the change and tumult in our lives these last months.

Moving is a messy experience and doing it as we have, in small bites, a trip at a time, has its benefits except each time is just as messy as the last. By the end of the week, the apartment was turned upside down, again, with boxes and bubble wrap strewn about, several packing tasks concurrently half-completed and the clock ticking down fast before the return of our tenant and our departure back to Spain. There wasn’t enough time to do all of the things I wanted to do – my ambition to sort through that office cabinet or empty that medicine cupboard was greater than the time allotted. Or I stopped trying to do it all and just let it rest while I slipped out to my favorite café to sit on the corner stool and smile at the barmen while my children paraded around the bar in their thrown-together Halloween costumes.

De-facto can pack a car like nobody’s business, and in his usual fashion he bull-dogged every box and basket and table and chair that had been designated for this trip into the small van we’d hired. The girls are used to it. They don’t even blink at being squeezed into the back seat with suitcases stuffed beneath their feet. Nine hours later, they took their places in assembly-line form, unpacking the car and getting things on the street, into the elevator and into our apartment. bottles_cans_in_order

It must have been after 10 pm when we’d brought in the final box, and though I’d risen at 6 am that morning to finish packing and cleaning what used to be home in Paris, I had to start unpacking right away. I needed to put the kitchen right, adding the second wave of dishes and utensils that hadn’t been essential when we moved two months ago – things like my mother’s pancake-batter bowl, my favorite serving platters, the champagne flutes – but now would make the kitchen complete. This snowballed into an entire kitchen cupboard re-org, but when I was done, later than midnight, I had the feeling that the kitchen wasn’t so funky after all and maybe it was starting to feel a little bit like home.

There’s still a lot to do to pull our apartment together, furniture to purchase, pictures to hang and shelves to fill with books and objects d’art. But for the first time I had the feeling that this apartment in Barcelona could be home, that it felt good to be here, good to be at home away from home.


Sep 20 2013

Homing In

We went from being homeless to holding the keys to three apartments. The friend who loaned us our first temporary apartment in Barcelona decided to delay her return – for romance – so we didn’t have to rush out of her place. We moved to a second temporary apartment, but I still needed to return and pick up a few things I’d left at the first one and give it a good cleaning. chairs_in_salonThe signing of the lease on what is our official apartment was a friendly procedure, though De-facto and I took our time and scrutinized the fine print. We’d waited an extra weekend to move in, we figured our new landlord could take an extra hour or two to make sure we understood all the terms of the lease. I walked out of that meeting with three sets of keys jangling together in my purse.

We have a found a place to live.

We have just enough mattresses to sleep on. There are not quite enough chairs. Those at the dining table get moved to our desks during the day, to the girls’ work-table when it’s time for their homework and back to the table for dinner. The dishes and cooking utensils that came from Paris are just the basics: plates and bowls and cutlery, a few fry-pans and pots, a soup/pasta boiling pot and a casserole dish. The only glasses I brought were wine glasses. I’ve made a few purchases to equip the kitchen, but otherwise we’re living lean until we can make the next trek to Paris and return with more of our dishes and cooking tools. The new cupboards are slowly getting stocked with food, but still seem bare compared to those in Paris, stuffed with bags of lima beans and boxes of rare grains and spices left by friends and guests. I can never bring myself to throw those food-stuffs out, convincing myself that maybe I could use that 4-year old bag of red beans for a winter stew that somehow never materializes. It’s rather nice to be liberated from the cramped cupboards and old boxes of dated food. Though there are adjustments to be made: food shopping is different in our new neighborhood. The products are unfamiliar, the stores are smaller and sparser, the hours of operation, slightly inconvenient.

I knew that even after we found an apartment, even after we moved in, there would still be tests. You can’t get internet service until you have a bank account. In order to get a bank account, you need a special number. Actually you can get a bank account without that number, but you still need that number in order to get internet service, or anything else for that matter. But you have to make an appointment on-line in order to get a special number, which you can’t do, if you don’t have internet. None of this is a surprise. The same conundrums and catch-22s existed in Paris when I first moved there, and are endemic to any bureaucratic system, anywhere in the plugged_inworld. You have to home in on the key obstacles and figure out how to overcome them, one at a time. In our case, kind Canadian neighbors below us with boosters on their wifi are generously loaning us their signal until we can get our own.

There is a constant churn, the feeling of going around again and again without making progress. My inefficiency astounds me. Destabilized by our busy departure and the uncertainty that plagued our first weeks here, I am too slowly getting my bearings in this new city. The temporary quality of our life is palliated now by the fact that we did manage to get the apartment we loved and have moved our two van-loads of possessions out of storage and into our new home, but we are still far from settled.

These days I long for the Camino. That bliss of nothing to do each day except walk from here to the next place, a place designated solely by my whim or fatigue. Late, quiet afternoons to write, read, rest without any obscure children’s school supplies to buy in a foreign language in a city you don’t yet know by heart. Everything slow and deliberate, one boot in front of the other. It was easy, then, to be centered and calm.

It’s been harder to keep that spirit in the midst of finding a home, still a challenge as we work to set it up, all the while trying to be empathetic to the girls as they adjust to their new teachers with new classmates and new languages. I am afraid I’m failing on that front. I pick the girls up at school and ask the right questions, but I’m not always fully present with them, not really hearing their answers. There’s too much chatter in my own brain, keeping track of the tasks I have before me, my own professional obligations to address while still running about the city opening bank accounts, buying shower curtains and drinking glasses, returning again and again, and again to the Vodaphone store to activate a Spanish phone number that for some reason refuses to function and yet despite that, has a contract that cannot be cancelled. The dirty clothes were piling up and I couldn’t find a single laundromat. Another trip out the door with the Visa card in hand, a new washer and dryer finally delivered yesterday, the washing machine has been churning ever since.

This morning Buddy-roo complained of a stomachache. She averted her eyes, making that face she makes when she wants me to know she’s unhappy. Yesterday she went to the nurse’s office at school because of her tummy. I don’t think she’s faking it – though that’s not beyond her – I think it’s the stress of a new school and a new environment. Short-pants appears to enjoy the new school more than her sister, but she still has frequent melt-downs. Yesterday she couldn’t find her Spanish classroom, and became so upset that the surveillant at the school office made her sit down and have a cup of tea. The day before, she stayed after school for theater only to discover the class wouldn’t start until October. She left the building so flustered that she got lost on the way home.

Last night the full moon streamed through the shutters of my window, painting short stripes on the floor beside the bed. There were some noisy kids outside. The moonlight was too bright, or its energy was tugging at me. I laid awake, restless, or worried, or overtired – or all of the above, wondering if I would grow to regret this decision to move. I slid out of bed and into the living room and sat in the dark, in one of the comforting green armchairs that used to be in my mother’s house. I listened to the night noises of our new apartment and thought about the night noises of our place in Paris, the death-rattle of our on-its-last-leg refrigerator, the scampering of mice from underneath the cupboards, the sound of our neighbors on their joy_doorcreaky staircase. Funny how I miss those noises. I miss my life in Paris.

But that’s part of the ride. It’s easy to focus on all the bits that are difficult about moving house and moving to a new country. I’ve done this before and I know that I need to keep my eye on the prize, to remember what happens if I keep looking the right direction: new friends and expanding experiences. I need to start homing on what’s in store for us here, all the things that are new and possible, and just around the corner.


Sep 8 2013

Finding your Place

The huge green gate swung open and the dozens of moms and dads, congregated to fetch their children after the first day of school, plowed into the courtyard. The children stood in a clump, all of them slightly hunched over from the weight of backpacks that contain every school book they own. The first parents through the gate created a tall wall that made it nearly impossible to find your own in the mob of children waiting to be claimed. I paced back and forth behind the crowd of parents, craning my neck to locate Buddy-roo. I wasn’t worried that I wouldn’t find her, but more concerned that she would panic not having been found. The school is so much larger than our little corner primary school in Paris. There were so many kids, and as many adults. I stood for nearly ten minutes looking for her.

Then that moment. It happens at every school pick-up, and warms my heart each time. It was ten times more robust on this day, the end of her first day at a new school. I saw her and she saw me and her face exploded into a huge grin. My whole body sighed with relief. She’s happy. It went well. She inched through the swarm of people to reach me.

“I made five friends today!”

She is a voraciously social creature; achieving new friends is her measure of success.
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“And I love my teacher!”

I didn’t expect her to have difficulty, but I know it’s not easy, adjusting to a new school and a new life in a new city. That morning, standing outside the school with her, I felt as though we were alone in the sea of families greeting each other warmly, catching up with their friends after the long summer vacation. I pictured us in the courtyard of our school in Paris, where we’d be hugging our friends and chatting and laughing, all of it too loud and the directrice would have to remind us, repeatedly, to be quiet as she called out the name of each student. A sharp dagger of regret not to be there with our friends instead of here amongst these strangers. I let it wash over me, not accepting it, not fighting it either. In moments of unfamiliarity, the familiar always has a halo. You will find your place here, I told myself. So will they.

~ ~ ~

The van we’d rented was stuffed to the gills. Every space was used. Boxes and suitcases stuffed to the ceiling, rendering the rear view mirror useless. De-facto even unpacked some of the smaller bags I’d prepared, breaking my father’s cardinal rule of nothing without a handle – sage guidelines always appreciated when unpacking – and stuffed the girls shoes and T-shirts into the nooks and crannies. The front passenger seat was pushed so far forward that only Buddy-roo could sit comfortably in it. Half of the back seat was given to storage so Short-pants and I squeezed in the other half. We were like the Clampetts, riding toward Beverly Hills in an overloaded jalopy.

Moving sucks. Even if you have a moving company with a big truck coming to transport your life in cartons to your new doorstep, it’s brutal. I wanted to hire such a mover. I pictured those muscled men hoisting our boxes away and then miraculously appearing again at the other end to carry each box in, placing it where I’d point. De-Facto, being a scrapper, resisted the idea, reminding me not only of the unnecessary expense – we aren’t taking that much furniture – but also how when you have just a small load they try to pack you in with other larger shipments and you end up at their mercy. It took weeks to coordinate a delivery date for the small shipment from my mother’s house, about the same amount as we are taking to Barcelona, and it was not without surprise charges and additional headaches. So our plan: take a load of stuff with us, find our apartment, unload it and then De-facto would drive back to France for our second load, the pack for later load. Anything else could wait until the fall school holiday, when we could make a third trip to get any other longed-for items. The plan was not to move our entire home – we have a renter in Paris who’s counting on most of our furniture – but to take just what we’d need.
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Things were going along according to plan. We hit the ground running, saw a fabulous apartment on the first day and three more very livable options the next. At each apartment we visited, Buddy-roo and Short-pants would run off to explore the bedrooms while De-facto and I inspected the main rooms and kitchen. They’d sprint back with a report on who’d claimed which room. They moved into every apartment, in their imaginations, instantly.

Then, last Monday, we found it. A slightly eccentric apartment with floor-to-ceiling glass doors that slide open against a balustrade, giving the effect of being indoors and yet on a terrace. It’s a duplex, too, so the girls can keep their upstairs universe, only this time with more headroom than in our attic apartment in Paris. De-facto and I have agreed, more or less, on the viability of all the apartments we’d seen, but now we turned to each other and it was obvious: this one. We made an offer – with the rental market as it is in Barcelona it wouldn’t be sane to pay the asking price – and negotiation started. On Tuesday we reached a verbal agreement. Conceivably, the contract could be signed mid-week and we could move in on the weekend, which would give us time to move out of our temporary digs and leave them in mint condition for the return of the friend who was loaning her apartment to us while she went to Burning Man.

On Wednesday the owner, our potential landlord, wanted more information, requesting financial documents that we never guessed we’d need and had left packed away. Our new tenant in Paris – fortunately a good friend – was heroic in his willingness to scavenge for these papers and scan and send them to us. This would delay the signing, but we still had time. That afternoon, however, the small side window of our van was smashed and we were robbed. In broad daylight. We’d had the sense not to leave our most important possessions in the van, there were just boxes of sheets and towels, toiletries, a large suitcase of De-facto’s clothing (I actually wish they’d taken that), some books and papers. There was nothing of demonstrable value except the one item we’d forgotten to bring in because it was hidden in a secret floor compartment that the thief managed to find: the small black bag with our video camera. I could care less about the camera, we stopped filming years ago. It was that all our cassettes were in the same bag. Every video of Short-pants and Buddy-roo, coming home from the hospital, kicking in their highchair, learning to walk, playing at the beach. All of them surely tossed in a garbage bin somewhere in Barcelona.

“It’s okay,” I consoled a tearful Buddy-roo. She’d been watching the videos just last week, relishing the images of her own childhood. “I had no videos of my childhood and but I still remember it was a happy one.”

It was time for Plan B. We moved everything that was left in the van into our tiny temporary apartment, and De-facto, worried that a stack_of_gripsvehicle with a broken window would only invite another theft, decided to drive it back to Paris, that night. He’d return it and get another van – a bigger one even – and on the way back he’d stop off at the country house to pick up a few pieces of furniture, returning to Barcelona on Friday. Our heroic friend and renter even volunteered to drive back with him; an extra muscle to move things, a co-pilot and relief driver, and in general good company. In the meantime, I’d sign the lease and we’d move everything in on Saturday.

Except on Friday, while De-facto sped down the autoroute toward Spain, I got a call informing me that the landlord wouldn’t schedule an appointment until he could review our tax returns, which meant not until Monday. I should mention that the night before I noticed that Short-pants was scratching her head and a close inspection confirmed that she had lice, and so did Buddy-roo. We were up until after midnight combing out their hair. The only saving grace is that the metal long-tooth combs and tea-tree oil were in the box of toiletries we’d been forced to bring in from the van after the theft. This, probably my lowest moment of the move, so far: operating on four hours of sleep, a van of our belongings on their way to Barcelona, another van’s worth of boxes and suitcases in our tiny temporary apartment that we needed to vacate before Sunday, and no apartment until at least Monday, or later.

I was never thrilled about plan B. I’d have waited until we signed a lease before making a trip back to Paris. But De-facto had valid reasons for pressing forward this way, and when he wants to get something done he’s tenacious. Or he trusts that if things go wrong, he can solve that problem later. It’s foolish, sometimes, what we get ourselves into. It does keep our problem solving skills in sharp order. It’s definitely not boring. But now I had to devise a plan C. There, on the ground, and fast.

I asked our real estate agent for a list of the best storage units, and with his advice, managed to contact one and make a reservation. I’d already been scanning Air BnB apartments to rent in case our homelessness stretched beyond the weekend. I sent a bunch of messages inquiring about places to rent for a few days, or up to a week. I met the girls at school and tried to be cheerful as I explained that we’d have to wait until Monday to find out about our apartment. I think they’re used to this “suspended” situation we are in; they just shrugged and asked for a snack.

~ ~ ~

Night fell around us as we sat on the balcony at the home of new friends introduced to us by our friend/tenant who’d accompanied De-facto to Barcelona with our things, new friends who’s daughter happens to be, by chance, in the same class as Short-pants. While we’d driven the van to the storage unit and unpacked it – how reassuring to see my grandmother’s two velvet fauteuils ready to be in our new home, wherever we make it – these friends cooked up a paella and set the table on their terrace. In the course of dinner conversation, we acquired the name and number of a cousin in Barcelona who has an apartment we can rent a day at a time until we get our own. A crisp glass of white wine, children playing together happily inside, the night air warm and easy, it felt like things had somehow turned around. A few angels here and there, a helpful friend, a generous stranger. Maybe it was hope, maybe it was just the wine: we even started to laugh at our own situation.
palm_trees
You learn a lot about your decisions when you think about undoing them. There’ve been many moments this week when I thought about how much easier it’d be if we’d just stayed in Paris. But after each flash of frustration or fatigue, I’d looked around and notice something like a palm tree in front of the school and remind myself that we came here for a reason, even if I don’t know what it is yet. As for the apartment: we like the other ones on our list well enough, but we love this one. The thought of not giving it one or two more days to come together feels short-sighted. Perhaps tomorrow things will fall into place and we’ll have a new home. If not, we’ll have to concoct a plan D.

As I write this, De-facto and the girls are in the other room, crowded around his computer, laughing out loud at a string of videos: two little girls singing “Twinkle Twinkle,” the kids playing poker with their uncle in the back yard of the country house, footage from our stay in Cambodia. As it turns out, he’d archived some of those early family videos on his hard drive. A few motion pictures of the girls’ charmed childhoods still exist. Seeing the videos reminds me of all the places we’ve been, how happy we’ve been in all of them, and how we just have to give it some time before we all find our place here in Barcelona.


Dec 15 2012

Come Home

I was going to write about yesterday, when Buddy-roo came home from school and announced to us, in a panic, that she had a 5-minute oral presentation due for next Monday. The project was assigned to her a month ago, but fell through the cracks of our parental supervision. Some might contend it’s her responsibility to keep track of her own assignments – but then of course, she’s only nine and I know when I was in the 4th grade I wouldn’t have tracked on an assignment of this nature without a little help from the adults. It was her problem, but it was also our problem, as much of the weekend would not be devoted to preparing the assignment.

I was going to write about one night just a few weeks ago, when Buddy-roo ran into the living room after dinner – and after any paper-supply store was closed – to inform us that she needed a life-size piece of blank cardboard. For the next day. She was to perform a skit with two other classmates, and she’d volunteered to bring in the prop: a large poster of Goldilocks sleeping in a bed. Maybe if I were an arts-n-crafts mom I’d have a closet filled with foam board and large cardboard and other supplies. Not that we don’t have a certain stock of creative materials on hand, but a poster-sheet of cardboard just wasn’t part of the instant inventory. Well, it was, but I’d given it to Short-pants the night before, to draw a map of the Jamaica for one of her school reports. That was a bit of a miracle, that I’d saved the poster from a previous year’s exposé on spiders. But two large cardboard sheets out of a hat, this maternal magician could not pull.

I was going to write about the debacle of helping Short-pants to set up a meeting with three of her classmates to work on that very report about Jamaica, ultimately requiring a Doodle poll which still couldn’t unite all the parents in a single conversation about a time and place that would work. The result, a just-under-the-wire meet-up, putting us once again in an at-the-last-minute dash to organize the map on that recycled piece of cardboard, and to practice the oral presentation for the report.

I was going to write about another assignment – it seems every time I turn around Short-pants has a team presentation requiring the juggling of agendas of other students and parents to find that precious two hours to get in sync – this one about rationing in wartime Britain. There was no mutually workable date until the night before it was due, so we scrambled to pull it all together swiftly and memorize the presentation – they have to do the oral part without notes – once again, pulled together, just under the wire.

I was going to write about the last minute demands that make me feel like some kind of short-order mom, and how I’ve had it with them coming home from school with all their I-need-it-for-tomorrow panic attacks. And once again about all the things I have to chase after, scribbled notes in cahiers from teachers for quick turnaround on lost or missing materials and newly required supplies I have to chase around town to acquire.

But now I’m not.

Because while Buddy-roo stood there, holding her map of the south Atlantic states, in shock and overwhelmed by the work she’d have ahead of her this weekend, De-facto read out loud a headline from his Yahoo home page, about the massacre of students and teachers at the Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. He clicked through and read the details, sketchy still at that moment, but enough to leave us wordless.

So instead, this is what I’m going to write: how Short-Pants and Buddy-roo can come home from school, anytime, anyday, and ask for anything the need, new ink cartridges, erasers gone missing, more glue sticks, cardboard poster boards, help organizing a meeting of their schoolmates, helpful reminders about what’s due and when. I may not be able to rally for them; but they can ask for anything they want and everything they need – even if it’s at the last minute – just as long as they come home from school. Please, please, just be sure to come home.


Aug 25 2012

Close to the Ground

At the country house we are always close to the ground. Nature is prominently adjacent, in every direction. Walk out the door and there is grass. Behind the house a forest. Dust and dirt find a way inside, blowing in through the cracks and crevasses of old doors and windows, tracked in on little and big sized shoes. We are constantly touching the earth: tilling the garden, weeding, picking up vines and branches that have fallen or been pruned to the ground. Each day I walk to the edge of our property to contribute to the compost, grabbing with my hands piles of dirt to cover the empty vegetable peels, cantaloupe rinds and egg shells I’ve thrown on top of the pile of organic garbage. It is the opposite of our city life, where the earth is covered by pavement and half the time we are meters above the soil and the earth, where other people remove our garbage and clean our streets. In the country, we’re working all the time, our fingernails are constantly dirty, our feet always close to the ground.

This is in part due to the rustic quality of our country house, an early twentieth-century edifice, inhabited for the forty years before we purchased it by an eccentric bachelor and his pack of dogs. The price was very reasonable, though we probably still overpaid, and like all old houses it came with surprises, the kind that make you keep paying. A full septic tank needed to be emptied the first week we were here and must be replaced, according to the inspector, within the next two years. The roof leaks, floors are rotted. We knew it was a fixer-upper, but you never know how much fixing up there really is until you’re in it.

We’ve removed plaster and pointed our fieldstone walls, reconstructed floors and replaced windows – all by ourselves. Given the nature of our professions – plenty of talking, thinking, writing and planning – the chance to build or rebuild something with our hands is gratifying, if not humbling. It is hard and dirty work, digging in the ground and laying cement and molding plaster around stone. It is backbreaking work to remove beams and old boards and to mount insulation and wallboard. Though I help, and so do the girls, it is De-facto who does the bulk of this work, and mostly alone, during the weeks we are here. This is why it takes years to finish one room.

I know someday we’ll have a real kitchen, but for now ours is barely functional: a long, bare room with a narrow stove, a sink, a table and one cupboard. There is no place to put a Cuisinart or an electric milk frother. The toaster we have, inherited from a friend who left town, burns all toast unless closely observed. Our hand-me-down fridge has an interior freezer without a door, so De-facto fashioned one out of Styrofoam and packing tape. I refuse to invest in new appliances until we renovate the kitchen, so we manage somehow to function with what we have, a hodgepodge of furniture, dishes and cooking gear that remarkably turns out edible, and even occasionally delectable, meals.

I didn’t realize how valuable this was until a few summers had passed, when it became apparent to me that the renovation would not happen swiftly, when I found myself putting MacGuyveresque solutions in place for storage and other basic household functions, when I noticed that Short-pants and Buddy-roo were being equally creative. In the absence of their familiar toys and the playtime props of home, they make up games, create costumes out of leaves and ferns, toys out of sticks and stones, amusing themselves with things found in the house and outside in the fields and forest. They have the freedom to run about, of more value than most possessions, and they are connected to the ground.

An internet connection is harder to come by. Since we’re only here 10 weeks or so a year, we haven’t installed it. We walk down the lane and pilfer (with permission) from our neighbor, or ride a kilometer into the nearest village to jump on an open wifi network. Thanks to 3G, the news of the world still reaches us, but it seems more absurd than ever. We chop wood and carry water while slick politicians rant about moral issues that have little to do with how they might turn an economy around, widen the narrowing middle-class or govern a nation fairly. The rhetoric seems so far removed from anything that’s real or important. Forget Mr. Romney’s tax returns. I’d like to see him use a little elbow grease on my bathroom bowl as a measure of his character. I think every candidate should have to scrub a toilet to get on a ballot. It couldn’t hurt to remind what it’s like, close to the ground.

In a previous, potential life of mine – the one imagined in those what-if-I’d-kept-that-job or what-if-I’d-stayed-with-him moments – the second home would probably have had every comfort. Or if charmed by a house as needy as this one, architects and contractors would have been called in to complete their deeds before attempting to inhabit it. I don’t mean to assert that De-facto and I are impoverished or that our life is a trial. That’s not the case, we live comfortably. But we have made choices that prohibit a lavish life; opting to do things rather than have things. Though occasionally the longing for an ever-clean, semi-luxurious, well-appointed country house, the one where I’d lounge against plump cushions on a plush divan all afternoon before cooking up something on my La Cornue 6-burner stove is real and fierce.

In Paris, a cleaning woman comes weekly and our babysitter helps with ironing, but here, I sweep and clean and scrub and weed and patch and paint. The chores that earn the girls allowance at home are lightweight compared to the country house: here they do dishes, clean toilets, remove brush from the lawn and help with construction projects. They are expected to do their share, because there is much to be done and everyone has to pitch in. They are learning something that I think many in our generation of parents are forgetting to transmit to our kids – and I probably wouldn’t have thought to emphasize it if we didn’t have this broken-down house – how to be happy with less stuff, and how to do the dirty work that nobody likes to do. I hope that Short-pants and Buddy-roo grow up to fly high and far, but it can’t hurt them to know what it’s like to be close to the ground.


Jan 28 2012

Newly at Home

When Buddy-roo heard the long, loud buzzer, she leapt up and squealed, “They’re here!” She sprinted to the foyer to pick up the interphone, not even bothering to ask who it was, right away pressing the button to open the street door. She ran out into the hall to wait at the top of the stairwell, listening to the breathless (already) footsteps slowly winding up the four flights of stairs.

“I’m so glad to see you!” She threw herself at the mover, a young man who looked older than he probably was because of an unfortunate girth. I hoped there were muscles somewhere beneath his obese frame. He’d already made a delivery, it seemed, from his distinctive body odor. Buddy-roo recoiled as politely as she could, regretting that she’d gotten so close.

“We’ve been waiting for you to bring the Fisher Price toys,” she said. “What took you so long?”

Buddy-roo launched into a animated description of the toys that she was expecting – the house, the school, the village, the airport – and the people and pieces that accompanied each one and how she intended to play with them. He stared at her, still panting from climbing the stairs, unaccustomed to such an enthusiastic and informative welcome.

The boxes came up in slow motion, one by one. They’d been packed in September and already I’d forgotten much of what I’d decided to send. What I remember was being brutal with myself: eighteen crates of books whittled down to one. Three large cartons of sentimental objects became a single shoebox of can’t-part-with memorabilia. Aside from the toys and the chinaware, the other things I’d shipped were now like surprises. My father’s cocktail shaker and shot-measure, my mother’s beaded clutches, her blue-feathered toque hat, in its original hatbox. Two metal boxes of photographs from her youth: in Cuba, in college, with her young children. This is why I didn’t insure the shipment. Everything – the dishes, the toys, the artifacts of her childhood and mine – was irreplaceable. Had they gone missing, I couldn’t buy them back. The only thing in those boxes, really, was nostalgia.

~ ~ ~

The shipment was supposed to arrive in Paris mid-November, but it wasn’t until December when I got the email about its arrival, as luck would have it, on the day after I left for New Zealand. A day (or two) earlier and I could have processed the 37 forms needed to clear customs. Instead I was in a hotel in Auckland, scrambling during workshop breaks, negotiating with the hotel to get things printed, signed, and scanned and put the papers in order. Time was of the essence, or so I thought. Buddy-roo was hounding me about the Fisher Price toys. There were a few other items that I was eager to have in my possession, like the Christmas ornaments for our tree, and my mother’s good china, with which I’d hoped to set our holiday table.

I managed to get the papers in on time, but it turns out there wasn’t a truck available to transport the boxes from their point of entry in the UK to our home in Paris until January. The shelves we’d cleared for the Fisher Price toys sat empty for weeks. I ended up setting the table for Christmas dinner with our every-day dishes.

After more than four months and just as many supplementary payments – for the customs fee, the above-the-second-floor delivery fee, the our-truck-is-too-big-for-your-street-you-have-to-pay-for-a-shuttle-van fee and then last but not least, the our-van-got-a-parking-ticket fee, the boxes have arrived. Our home is now as cluttered as ever, with paraphernalia of my past pressing itself on the possessions of my present. There’s stuff everywhere, a reminder of how messy life is when you collect its souvenirs anywhere but in your memory.

~ ~ ~

Upstairs the sound of little wooden people moving back and forth among pieces of small plastic furniture assured me that Buddy-roo would be distracted for hours. Short-pants came home from her music class and the two of them fell deeply into their Fisher Price world. I set about finding a place for all the newly delivered items, unwrapping yards of tape and packing bubbles to reveal the round, gold-colored quilted cases that kept safe my mother’s china plates, bowls, cups and saucers. I started with the largest, opening it to see if any of the porcelain dinner plates had broken.

My hand on that zipper released the stories locked inside: how many times I’d unzipped those very cases, lifting out the plates, one-by-one, removing the plastic disc between each one, setting them on my mother’s table. I was required to iron the white linen tablecloth first, and she’d instructed me where to place the silverware, the glassware, the napkins. I’m sure at the time I complained about having to set the table, but I was remembering it now as if it were the sweetest moment of the year.

Another box of dishes hadn’t fared so well. Three of her fondue plates, the ones with separate compartments for different sauces and condiments, had cracked beyond repair. The sight of them in pieces shattered me, I sat there sobbing about some silly broken plates that I’ll probably never use because we don’t even own a fondue pot.

This I hadn’t expected. It’s been two years since we said our goodbyes to my mother. Two years, a mindful memorial service, a half-dozen trips to the house to clean and ready it for sale. I had my desperate moments emptying it out, but I fooled myself to think that with the house sold and the burden of its care behind us that the chapter of grieving was closed. Now I was standing in the middle of my own living room surrounded by just a few of her most precious belongings, and there it was again, as fierce as ever, that hole in the middle of my heart, and the tears that can’t possibly fill it.

~ ~ ~

Persuading Buddy-roo and Short-pants to move from the floor – and the elaborate spread of Fisher Price toys – to their pillows was no small task. We had first to put every little person on his or her little plastic bed. The toys are so old that the sponge mattresses have disintegrated into almost nothing. It doesn’t matter to the girls. To them, the toys are like new toys with a new home, our home.

Buddy-roo finally tucked snug under her covers, and the light switched off, I maneuvered through the Fisher Price minefield to get out of her bedroom. Outside her door, I looked back, surveying the toys, admiring how the girls had set them up, startled to see my childhood grinning back at me. How I loved those toys. There is something utterly reassuring about having them under our roof, just like the bittersweet possession of my mother’s china, a comforting reminder of all that was once home to me, and all that is even more home to me now.


Jan 6 2012

Easy On Me

She’d closed the lid on the toilet seat and was standing on it, looking at herself in the mirror. In her hands, she held up a plastic hairbrush with a green flowery pattern on the back.

“Was it you,” said Buddy-roo, “who put my brush away in the wrong tray?”

I can’t keep it straight, which brush – green or yellow – belongs to Short-pants and which to Buddy-roo. They always leave them in my way, so I toss any hairbrush I come across on the counter into either one of the plastic trays that are stuffed with girlie hair elastics and bubble-gum smelling sprays on their designated shelf.

“I don’t like it when you put my brush away in her tray,” she said.

Tell me about it.

A system for stowing prized items ideally means you spend less time hunting for them and more time using them. It gives us a semblance of order, at least about the placement of basic tools we require day-to-day, aiding the creative process – something usually considered messy – by providing an underlying structure. If you’re cooking up a masterpiece in the kitchen, you don’t want to spend fifteen minutes rifling through your drawers to find a whisk, right?

This was a pet peeve of my mother. I’d hear her opening and closing drawers and cupboards in succession, mumbling to herself, unable locate an essential utensil or serving dish because a visitor, usually her mother-in-law, had put it away, not only in the wrong place but in an illogical one, so that she couldn’t find it even with an educated guess.

“At least she was trying to help,” I’d say of my grandmother, picturing her bending over into a cupboard, her hand reversed on her hip, a gesture she and my father had in common. “She’s getting old. Give her a break.”

My mother’s compulsion is something I didn’t understand until now that I share it. When the rest of your world is a mess and you’re trying to run a household, it helps to have some ability to order something. The kitchen drawers might be the last bastion of control. A new babysitter and a new cleaning woman have recently joined our household, and despite a dozen years in the same kitchen, De-facto and I still aren’t aligned on where things go. My mother, wherever she is now, is snickering at me.

As much as she was irked by various visitors who couldn’t put things where they belonged, my mother suffered, paradoxically, from the same maternal dementia, the feeble post-partum memory, that plagues me. I know well the chiding I’m in for, having doled it out plentifully. My mother used to ignore my exasperated rebukes, or she’d offer a half-hearted apology. Now I get it: when your mind is processing so many things, preparing for a meeting, sorting out a problem colleague, trying to get this and that done and still pick your daughter up from school on time to go to the orthodontist, the brain matter gets allocated to things other than the placement of a hairbrush or a preferred brand of toothpaste.

“I’ll try to be better,” I said, evoking the nuance of mother’s half-hearted voice. I reached up to give Buddy-roo a hug. Standing on the toilet, she towered over me. She jumped down to the floor so I could put my arms around her.

“Someday maybe you’ll have children,” I whispered into her hair, “and you might find that your brain doesn’t work as well it does now.” I considered her ironclad capacity to retain melodies and lyrics from favorite musicals after only one viewing. Spelling words and vocabulary: not so much. I almost pointed out this discrepancy, but then I thought better of it.

“When your kids get all out of joint about you doing something wrong, I want you to remember this moment, this precious one right now. Then you’ll begin to know the meaning of the word compassion.”

“Compassion?” she said.

“You’ll see,” I said, walking out of the bathroom. It may take a couple of decades for her to get it. I hope I’m around to snicker.